Top 10 Turntables [for Fun *and* Information]

I do not often write about gear. In fact, this is the first time. It’s simply not a significant part of the vision behind my blog. However, I have found a way to justify it. Within the world of theology and Christian practice there is this subcategory that I love called aesthetic theology.

While the phrase may sound complicated, it may not be so difficult to comprehend. Think back to a moment when your senses were overwhelmed with a surreal gratefulness and you just had to write or pray about it. Or maybe consider a time when you were at church worshiping and something about the hymn resonated with a deep part of your being and you simply felt at peace in God’s presence. If you’re someone like me who loves the outdoor world, think back to a time you saw a cascading waterfall or sweeping mountain vista, then think about the goosebumps. Love it or hate it, that powerful connection we feel to God through our senses and our imagination is called aesthetic theology.

For me, music is indeed a vital aspect of how I connect to God. I wouldn’t want to project this feeling on others, but I would certainly think plenty of folks would resonate with how I feel. Music, by its very existence, is a tiny clue, a step in the journey of understanding and trusting in the presence of our great God.

To justify writing about musical equipment, a guy needs reasons! Yes, vinyl happens to be one of my several hobbies, but I also need to keep my blog on point! Ok, on to the turntables.

The factors that go into my list are several, but in descending order they include quality, value, aesthetic appeal, and reasonable cost. Toward the end of the list, I compromised on the reasonable cost factor.

If you’re willing to put together a few hundred bucks, you can make one of these tables work long-term for your home audio situation.

1. Pro-Ject Debut

pro-ject-debut

Without a doubt, you’ll come across Pro-Ject when you take seriously the search for a quality turntable. The Debut series has been an enduring product line that has diverse options for any number of needs. Starting at $299 for the Debut III and ranging up from there, these Austrian-built ‘tables will suit the needs of most listeners and integrate well with any home audio system.

I personally own a Pro-Ject RM5 SE, another stellar performer in the sub-$1000 range, so you may consider my choice biased. However, thewirecutter.com, a respected  also loves the Pro-Ject as one of their best-rated options. A host of other reviewers agree, including Stereophile and UK-based HiFiChoice. It outperforms the other tables they review, and though thewirecutter.com selected another table as their “number 1” it was because of price, not sound quality.

Another fantastic choice if you like the Pro-Ject Debut is the Music Hall MMF 2.2. It’s made in the same factory but has some great features, even though it’s a bit more expensive. For the record [pun intended], years ago, when I first got into viniyl, Music Hall was my first love-but they led me to my soulmate, Pro-Ject.

I wanted to give a solid nod to Music Hall since I didn’t officially list one of their tables.

2. Rega RP1

rp1-titanium

The British are fanatics about vinyl. Made in southeast England, about 120 RP1 units are hand built daily to meet the demand of listeners around the world. This particular table is rather similar in design to Pro-Ject’s Debut, with a single plinth [the big square part of the turntable that everything is mounted on] and hidden motor. It’s $299, which is ragingly cheap for a solid product from a reputable company.

The Planar 1 is another great choice from Rega.

3. U-Turn Orbit

orbit-blue

I would be remiss not to mention U-Turn’s Orbit table.  Made in the greater Boston area, and again, with a single plinth, they utilize an exposed belt. This adds visual appeal while maintaining the isolation of the motor. Oh-if you aren’t sure what isolation means, no worries, I’m not some elitist. Motors makes a small amount of noise that can carry through to the needle, and since the needle vibrates to produce sound, you don’t want your motor interfering.

Starting at $179, this is probably the market’s cheapest ‘table that is a serious contender in terms of quality. The tonearm is the low point, in my opinion, but the overall design is solid and needle upgrades are always an option if you are looking for more nuanced sound.

4. Edwards Audio TT1

tt1

Reinforcing every stereotype [pun intended] about our British friends, this table is strikingly similar to the Rega RPM1’s no-frills design. That’s because the companies are related somehow. Unfortunately, I cannot tell exactly how. Go figure it out, I didn’t take the time.

Regardless, the TT1 is a great table. It comes with an acrylic platter, which is good both sonically and visually. The big issue with this ‘table is with its solid feet, it does not provide much sound isolation. Meaning, you’ll need to keep this thing on a heavy, solid table and away from any vibration.

5. Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB

 

audio-technica

To my eye and with all my biases, this ‘table is hideous. Really, it’s a table meant for DJs both in features and appearance. However, I wanted to include it on my list because of two reasons: it’s a direct-drive ‘table [the motor attaches straight to where the record sits] and it does USB recording. I’m not personally interested in either of these two options, but some folks want to spin/scratch and do DJ work. Others want to record and import their vinyl collection to their computer so they can stick the songs on their portable music player.

Indeed, there seem to exist two kinds of vinyl listeners: 1. those who enjoy the tactile aspect of having a hard copy of their favorite artists and 2. those who used to listen to vinyl back in the day who now want to combine the portability of an iPod with the nostalgia of their favorite tunes. I fit into the first of those two categories. It goes back to that aesthetic theology factor; when I take the time to dig out records and fire up my tube amp, I just love every little detail that composes the experience.

So, against my will, I’m including this hideous monstrosity on my list. At $249, it’s fairly cheap, and it gets the job done. For all you no-nonsense folks out there who aren’t concerned about appearance, this ‘table does come through. I can’t tell where it’s made, maybe Japan or somewhere in China. Not sure, the corporation is enormous. If you’re looking for something more attractive from Audio Technica, check out the AT-LP5. It’s a bit more expensive but a lot less hideous.

6. Gramovox Floating Turntable

fr_walnut_three_quarter

Made in Chicago, Gramovox prioritizes aesthetic appeal and simplicity. Yes, the ‘table sits upright, but that’s it’s one unnecessary-yet visually arresting-aspect. It’s purely minimalist design, very tactile, quite lovely with a walnut case. The other big thing about the Floating Turntable is that it is an integrated system, which means the speakers and pre-amp are all rolled into one. For $499, you get it all. 

For some, this is great. Others, however, want to upgrade these components. If you want to upgrade, you are in luck-the integrated system can be bypassed. But why would folks want to do such a thing?

Well.

The pre-amp in particular is an important part of a system because it boosts the tiny signal from the needle and makes it loud enough for the amplifier to boost to the speakers. In other words, it’s a bottle neck within the signal path [the signal path is the route from the needle, through cables, through a pre-amp, though an amp, through more cables, through speakers, and eventually to your ear].

People spend money on amps, speakers, cables, needles, and pre-amps because all of these matter for overall sound.

Fortunately, with its bypass feature, the Floating Turntable doesn’t force you to use its integrated speakers, pre-amp, and amp. This is one beautiful yet functional American designed and built ‘table.

7. Trntbl by Vnyl

trntbl

Ok, elites will hate me for listing this one, but hey-don’t hate, just read. This ‘table streams music. And it only streams music. Meaning, there are no cable outputs. To me personally, this is a big turnoff. But to others who prefer using Bluetooth speakers, it’s great.

The social features are where the Trntbl really shines. The unit identifies music it is playing-straight from the record-and allows the user to share this with friends or followers. Or, you can connect with others via Spotify and your friends can listen in to your music.

The Trntbl is available only for pre-order at $351, so it is yet to be tested extensively, but it appears to have decent components. Again, the quality will almost assuredly not compare with Pro-Ject or Rega, or even Audio Technica, but it has some interesting features that will surely stand out to certain listeners.

8. Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon

project-rpm10carbon

Twice I’m listing a ‘table from Pro-Ject. Why? It’s an incredible product. Yes, it’s $2999, and I get it, you have sticker shock. But this is one powerful and eye-catching means for spinning records. Look at that carbon fiber grain, the massive thick plinth, the belt, the sheer size. Plus it has an outboard motor which, just like an outboard boat motor, means the motor sits completely separate from the ‘table itself. The platter, where the record sits, is gorgeous and heavy. Gorgeous, because… well… people [like me, anyway!] love beauty. Heavy because it allows the records to play evenly without fluctuations in speed.

The RPM 10 comes with a heavy base to further isolate it from any sound or vibration in the room or neighborhood. Yes, jackhammers and construction equipment can indeed affect a needle. Plus, the base looks sick.

Oh-and did I mention? It’s tonearm is the carbon fiber Pro-Ject 10 cc. It’s essentially an upgraded version of the one that my RM 5.1 came with [props to me?].

9. VPI Classic

classic-002

A new old-stock Classic table is currently around $2800. Yes, paying close to three grand may seem like a lot, but I include this bad boy in my list because it’s a beautiful example of an enduring company that really cares about the details. Like the Pro-Ject RPM 10, it’s a true audiophile table. I mean, for goodness sake, it’s 65 pounds!  

Made in Cliffwood, New Jersey, VPI is a robustly American company using an old-school paradigm that prefers all-American components. They stick to their principles, and yes, they have expensive ‘tables. But the Classic is an enduring legend within the audiophile world.  My father in law, John, has sold [and loves] audio equipment professionally and recommends this ‘table for the price point. Yes, it costs as much as a used ’01 Toyota Corolla. But can that CD deck compare with this hoss?

I think not.

10. Origin Live Sovereign MKIII Turntable

origin-live-sovereign-mkiii-turntable-zoom

Don’t go buy one of these unless you’ve got way to much money-and no kids. It’s $7300, and that doesn’t even include a tonearm! But it’s one gorgeous, powerful machine. I won’t say a whole lot about it, but if you’re curious you can go learn more about it on your own. Once you’re into this $5,000+ category, there are a surprising abundance of options, and all of them probably have some great characteristics. Most of them look like something from the set of Alien or the new Halo movie. You half expect the tonearm on this one to morph into a laser or photon cannon. But, after reading the specs carefully, I’m afraid it does not.

Like fine wine, if you connect this ‘table to the same pre-amp, amp, and speakers, most of us couldn’t much of a difference between this and any of the budget models in my list. But then again, folks who buy this table are going to buy all of their gear commensurate with the turntable’s quality.

And they, unlike me, probably don’t have toddlers around. 

This is only one of many elite ‘tables out there that are visually and sonically arresting.

Summary 

Personally, I’ve hit my sweet spot. With a beyond-entry-level Pro-Ject RM 5.1, Jolida tube amp, and great inherited speakers and sub, my system is rocking. I doubt if I’ll change much, if anything. Maybe I’ll get a better pre-amp at some point or get fresh speakers, maybe a new set of tubes, but that’s way down the road.

img_4311

My system looks good, yeah? I’ll fish for a complement. I’m not above that. Not a good picture, but a great system. I hid the pre-amp and all wires underneath, naturally.

Now if I were someone out there with a few hundred bucks looking to get a solid system going, there are numerous choices in my list. I listed the Debut first because I really do think it’s the all-around best choice for the money, well ahead of the U-Turn on quality [see thewirecutter.com where the Debut strides far ahead of both U-Turn and Audio Technica]. I felt like I had to list models from Rega and Audio Technica because they’re perennial picks for good sound and enduring quality. The Floating Record player from Gramovox was a playful decision, as was the Trntbl, though they are both great for particular situations.

There may be a few folks out there with $5000-10,000 [or more] to sink in to a system, so I threw in a couple highlights from the very-high-end options that exist. There are so many out there, and it’s not really my area, so I only listed a couple.

A great many more ‘tables are out there that I didn’t list, spinning or maybe even scratching away. Can’t list ’em all, I suppose.

Anyway.

Enjoy music, folks, especially vinyl. May it, almost like a sacrament, remind you of the God who created the folks who creatively designed these machines, who created the folks who make the music that they faithfully reproduce. 

*

The Spiritual Significance of Leaving

The Spiritual Significance of Leaving

When I was little, one of my friends moved away. After I began to feel the loss, I complained to my mom. “Mom, I want just one friend who will never move away.” She wisely responded by suggesting that maybe people get married for this reason. I still missed my friend, but she made a good point.

Regardless, when close friends leave town, it’s never really an enjoyable experience. I certainly don’t have an easy time with it at least. It’s really rough saying goodbye to people who mean a lot to us.

During my senior year of college, this hit hard for me. I was looking out my bedroom window onto the campus of Spring Arbor University as it glowed with that perfect combination of moonlight and some strategically-placed halogens. I thought for a long time that Fall evening about the relationships I had built during my time there. And soon, life would necessarily pull each of us away from one another.

I was pulled to Grand Rapids. Other friends headed other directions. Some stayed a bit closer, sticking around Southeast Michigan. One left for Virginia. One left for Louisville.

Leaving is hard.

More recently, I’ve had some newer friends leave. A few weekends ago, we had one goodbye event on a Friday evening then got up the next morning for a goodbye breakfast. One family left for California for a new job. The other couple left for Scotland to pursue education.

Did I mention leaving is hard?

Over the years, I have realized that some friends seem to stay friends over the long haul. And that fact seems to soften the blow. If I bear in mind that we will, in fact, see those people again, it seems to prop me up psychologically. But it’s not enough for me. I wanted to push further on the topic.

grey skies

After a little thinking, I’ve been left with two distinct impressions. First, that we deeply miss one another when we are apart reveals the importance of human relationships. Because we have that feeling of absence, the strength of our relationship is underscored. Proverbs 17:17 is spot on: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” [NIV].

Second, I am reminded [and this may seem like a leap, but stick with me] of the reality of death. At 28, I have experienced the loss of just a few family members and friends, and I am sure plenty more pain is ahead for me on the death front. In Ecclesiastes 3:11 it says this: “God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in their hearts, without enabling them to discover what God has done from beginning to end” [CEB]. That same chapter talks about seasons for pretty much everything, including celebration, mourning, and dying.

So we’ve established that God has created all people to think long-term. Now check out this, from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

In summary, mourn away; leaving is hard, and death is far worse. But don’t forget that hope remains. Revelation 21:5 tells us this: “behold, I am making all things new.” And that’s Jesus doing the speaking.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#1] [Final Post in Series!]

Theology has teeth.

This is what I’ve learned throughout seminary. Here’s why.

Having graduating seminary, I have continued reading books within the world of theology. But I have also ventured into new territory. Recently I finished Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Before that, I devoured Eric Metaxas’s eponymous 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer.

My college chaplain, Ron Kopiko, always said that we say what we believe but we do what we value. If one is interested in finding someone who genuinely did what they valued, look no further than the unassuming Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer

Born early in the 20th century, he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men just as a then-obscure Austrian man grew in hate and anger and favor not with God but with a few nationalistic henchmen. As Adolph Hitler carefully assumed control in a debt-laden and politically compromised Germany, Bonhoeffer pursued his vocation in pastoral ministry and professorship.

Before it dawned on most of the elites in Germany, Bonhoeffer sensed Hitler had the worst of intentions. Wooing over the clergy in Germany who were willing to pay a high tax for a very fragile peace, Hitler did his best to spiritually legitimate his actions by subverting Christian beliefs. Attempting to obscure the reality that Jesus himself was Jewish, the Hitler-subservient Reich Church of Germany tossed out essentially the entire Old Testament. It simply didn’t fit with their current goals of destroying lives and calling on the German people to denigrate and destroy the Jewish people. Jewish theology, to them, had no place in their version of “Christian” practice.

True, many leaders in the church bowed to Hitler’s increasingly uncompromising demands. But there were many brave clergy who said no to Hitler. Risking income, status in the community, and their lives, Bonhoeffer carefully coordinated a resistance plan to Hitler’s grab for spiritual power. He leveraged his influence in various international church councils while petitioning his fellow German believers to practice a bolder faith. Bonhoeffer helped sift out the true disciples, the true Christians whose faith meant coordinate action.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer realized Hitler was politically unstoppable. The way he had managed to leverage nationalistic fervor through propaganda made any kind of resistance futile. Begrudgingly and with great fear for his soul, he became a part of a plan to assassinate Hitler. This was for the sake of the Jews, the disabled, the homosexuals, and all other people groups Hitler sought to exterminate, but it was to him a duty to God.

Bonhoeffer’s beliefs were strong enough that he risked everything–even his standing before God, the way he saw it–to live out his discipleship after Jesus.

There are few people who, like Bonhoeffer, have taken Jesus literally when he said, “take up your cross and follow me[1].” He was imprisoned for several years and eventually hanged on April 9th, 1945. Bonhoeffer’s no to Hitler meant a yes to the call of Jesus Christ.

May we, as Christians living in the 21st century, search for ways to take up our own crosses. Theology is not abstract or distant or irrelevant; at its core, our theology informs how we act in the world. And whether or not we talk about theological things, we say what we believe then do what we value.

Bonhoeffer valued Jesus.

That’s the start. Then comes the taking-up-our-cross part.

*

[1]Bible, New Testament, Matthew 16:24.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#2]

This is one of the most important discoveries of my entire seminary journey. After studying the difficult aspects of Christian faith and practice-the peripheral-the core components of faith burn way brighter.

To me, seminary was a time to lean into the most difficult questions of all.

School for pastors should include some of this, right? One would imagine that Christian leaders, with all their various abilities and giftings and sense of call, would still struggle with particular questions.

It’s true.

Instead of offering a straight-up theodicy I’ll say a few words on God, then tell a couple stories. The stories really do communicate the best.

But first, a few words on God.

Early in the Bible, we learn that God has created all things. Genesis 1-2, the accounts of creation, are poetic. But they are also brazenly polemic! They speak strongly against any other God but Yahweh, the God of Israel. With forceful language, these two chapters subvert other gods who were held in high esteem by neighboring peoples, and exalt the God of Israel, the true God.

And the place of people within the order is very high. And yet, God gave people free will. Humanity had the ability to decide how to act. So, ultimately, humans allowed evil to enter their world. Bad news, everyone; it’s our fault. And we can either blame our ancient ancestors or blame God.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Or, we can blame ourselves. Then, from the depths, we can cry out to God and observe his multifaceted plan for transformation. We can look to the hope he gives us in the history of the world, recorded in the pages of Scripture, and seek Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit he left his for his church.

Ok. On to the story.

The first story comes from my final Old Testament class. We had been moving through the Pentateuch [the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy] and noticed these monumental acts of God. The biggest, without a doubt, was the Exodus.

The Exodus was God’s act of delivering his people, Israel, from the superpower of the day-Egypt. Egypt is still fairly powerful, but not like the second millennium BCE! The only real competitor was Babylon to the far east.

After all the talk about dates, miracles, and the moral authority of God, things got personal. I probed and questioned. One other student and I really got after our professor about miracles. We wanted to hear about his own experiences with miracles.

It all started with a question. I now feel a little embarrassed about it. I asked, after pressing him on a bunch of questions, “care to share?”

Share he did.

Our professor shared the story of moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, from the East Coast. Amidst the busyness of moving, they had not the time to fully establish their son in the network of doctors in West Michigan. See, their son had a genetic condition that causes severe internal difficulties. One such difficulty lay within the young boy’s intestines. On one of his first evenings in Michigan, our professor’s son experienced an intussusception. This meant that a part of his intestine was folding in on itself.

As the boy sat, racked with severe abdominal pain, our professor and his wife paused to consider their options. They could go to the emergency room, where none of the doctors knew their son’s medical history. They could attempt to contact their physicians back east, but it was late in the evening. They planned to take him to the emergency room, but first they cried out to God for mercy.

A few minutes later, they gathered their things and prepared to leave. God, as it appeared, did not answer them this time.

Then, their son came to them from the living room. “I’m tired,” he explained. “I’m going to bed.”

Astonished, they asked him if he was feeling alright. “I’m fine, just tired,” he went on to explain, then climbed the stairs and headed to sleep.

Turns out God did listen to their prayer, and that he did act, and that he did show himself fully capable. Sure, maybe it was a fluke. Maybe the prayer had nothing to do with the healing. Maybe. But I doubt it. I guess about 3 of every 4 American doctors believe in miracles. They’re the ones who have witnessed such things, the ones with decades of training and experience, the ones on the forefront of medicine.

As I sat listening in class, I felt very small. I felt faithless. I felt as if I’d challenged and failed. I felt as if I’d been put in my place.

In my smallness of question-asking and challenging, I had become distracted from the largeness of God, even in my own life and my own experiences.

And today or in 50 years I may not understand the intricacies of exactly how the historical events of Scripture have been recorded. I may have a few doubts, concerns, and questions that hold out in the recesses of my mind regarding the formation of the Bible. But I don’t doubt the basics anymore: God is good. Jesus lived, ministered, died, and was raised to life, then ascended. He’ll return. Scripture speaks to the reality of God. These things are true.

Much of my seminary journey took me to the fringes of faith. My studies took me to tough places, and my classmates and I were burdened with difficult questions. But all the unknowing that takes place at the fringes pointed us back to the core dimensions of faith.

And, for us, the core now burns brighter.

*

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#4]

Here is the next installment of my little reflection series on my six years of theological study in the seminary context. I have also, of course, been influenced in my writing by ministry experience within two different faith communities.

My focus here is on the two most important Sacraments for Christians: baptism and communion.

*

Let’s face it. We live in a transient world.

My iPhone was slated to be out of date about a year from the date of its release. Apple’s calendar for new products moves almost as fast as seasonal fashion updates. Interior design may be a bit slower, but pretty much everything in our culture is rapidly shifting.

Undeniably, this has psychological consequences.

When we move so quickly, we miss out on things. Personally, I think tattoo culture grows out of this. Not going to lie; I love tattoos. Done right, they’re just so cool.

But why is it that we desire tattoos?

I’d like to make the case that part of our [and my] interest in the permanency of tattoos is on account of the impermanence of other fixed realities in the world. We’re always going to be transitioning to a different area, moving into a new friend group, trying a new app, purchasing a new piece of technology.

Baptism is altogether different than all of this.

Communion is also entirely unique.

I’ll take a stab at explaining. Water is ubiquitous, at least in the Midwest. We in the West usually don’t turn on our faucets each day wondering whether there is enough water to push through and give us clean hands or a cold drink.

We are not disquieted by an evening sip of red wine. Neither are we overwhelmed by a quick sandwich at lunchtime.

But in the context of Christian worship, our senses are opened to new realities when we witness baptism and communion. Let me talk about why this is the case.

Water cleanses, purifies, refreshes, and sustains. Jesus, according to Scripture, is living water.

Physical water points us to the living reality that we call God.

The waters wrapping the earth are powerful indeed. Scientists tell us the oceans slowly circulate, and every 500 years, like a giant game of tag, they all trade places. Deepest waters from the North Atlantic collect in an enormous basin as cold, salty water from Greenland and Norway sinks. This pushes the warmer waters south, between the Americas to the West and Europe and Africa to the East, until it hits the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which pushes the water east, where it circulates. The Pacific contributes greatly to the drama, adding sun-warmed water that winds up back in the North Atlantic.

How many glasses of water have I drunk over the years whose molecules once also nourished Jesus during his time on earth? Maybe those lively atoms helped to wash him in the more ancient Jordan River as he emerged from his own baptism or quenched the thirst of the disciples as they shared a Thursday evening meal with Jesus before his death.

When I think about my own experience of baptism, it was the muddy waters of the Muskegon River coursing Westward out of Houghton Lake and on to Lake Michigan that cleansed me. The people who had spiritually nurtured me during my earlier years sang hymns in the same sun that warmed Saint Augustine as he wrote and guided a community in North Africa. There is a deep spiritual connectedness to which the Sacraments, communion and baptism, point.

Paul says in baptism we are buried with Christ, then raised with him. We often think of this in a profound spiritual sense, and we are right to think this way. But in the Sacraments we also experience physically the connection we have with him. If baptism and communion were two arms, I would picture them holding with one hand on the physical world, and with the other holding the hand of Jesus incarnate. Somehow the wind of the Holy Spirit would blow, and the presence of the Father would be tangibly felt.

When we see these actions in the church, may our imaginations soar.

My imagination soared when my wife and I took our son, Silas, to be baptized. At three months, we as a church placed him gently at the feet of God, knowing we cannot open his eyes to see God on our own, but that we can do our best show him the path.

Over his wide open blueberry eyes, our pastor’s tender hand imprinted a tiny cross that dripped gently across his smooth forehead.

Silas Everett

And I wondered who had been baptized in that same water. John Wesley? Bonaventure? Saint James? Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

For sure, our precious Silas Everett Videtich. May he forever live into that sacramental reality.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#6]

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary early this month, this is the next of my seminary reflections. This is the fourth post, and one of the meatier ones.

#6

As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.

I used to wonder why it was that so many Christian denominations exist. I thought to myself and to others, “are we not divided against ourselves?”

Well, I suppose in some ways there is some division. The church is filled with redeemed rebels, people who God is gently leading toward right living. No doubt, there latent tension between followers of Jesus.

But this is what I learned at my interdenominational seminary: God is really big.

The map below illustrates well the diversity of faith in the United States.

us.map.of.denominations

The concept of God’s vastness may sound simple. And in a sense, it is.

The more I have learned about the enormity of our expanding universe and the tiny, intricate complexities of cells and atoms, the more I have begun to understand that God is really, really big. During the earliest days of God making himself known to humanity, people quickly realized this.

Ancient scribes tried their best to record everything they understood about God and write it all down. Have you ever read the Pentateuch? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are not exactly light reading! There are some literary snags, some difficulties, some overlaps, some confusion to be sure. But at the heart of the Pentateuch we see God’s strong covenant to redeem and restore humankind through a people group, Israel.

Various tribes did their best to respond to God over long periods of time, falling away and coming back. The prophetic class called the people of Israel to repentance, over and over again pleading on God’s behalf and on their behalf to be faithful to their calling. Kings rose and fell, with only a few truly loving and serving God with their whole hearts.

So it is, it seems, within the Christian church.

Over the twenty centuries since Jesus, the Son of God, revealed himself in the Ancient Near East, the church has sought to follow his directives. Evangelism, spiritual formation, and the slow building of the church has ensued since the days of Jesus’s physical presence, and the church leans readily into an eternal future where heaven eventually meets earth. The people who have responded to Jesus seek his grace for forgiveness and also his justice to roll down.

But amidst all of this, people groups have conflated their beliefs with the tenets of Christianity. Sometimes this wasn’t a bad thing at all. Paul, a Jew, and many of the other early Jewish followers of Jesus, continued many of their cultural practices: food laws, circumcision, sacred ritual habits. These things continued, and for the most part it was a question of how to integrate new believers into the church. The church’s conclusion was that newcomers did not have to adopt Jewish practices to follow Jesus. Many Jews held on to their practices, which was totally ok. Surely some slowly let go.

Fast forward to 1095. Western peoples, who had come to understand much of what Christianity meant, conflated their own feudal belief system with the religion of Jesus. The Apostles, who had gotten to know Jesus, would be thoroughly confused to meet European people calling themselves Christians. These Europeans conflated Christian principles of salvation and repentance with their tribalism, their honor culture, and their desire for conquest. To the chagrin of billions of Christians who would follow, this relatively tiny group of warriors and leaders forever caused confusion. But the church reformed and repented.

And so goes history. Just because someone takes up the exterior mantle “Christian” does not mean that person is walking in step with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and close to God the Father. It means, quite simply, that they call themselves a Christian. The same goes for groups of “Christians.” Scripture teaches that God evaluates the heart [I Samuel 16:7, Jeremiah 17:10, and others]. God perceives the actions of people, and he alone judges.

Because God evaluates the heart, it can sometimes be difficult to know which groups of Christians are genuinely walking in step with Jesus. Jesus himself teaches his people not to judge. The term in Matthew 7:1 is krinete, a Greek term translated accurately as “judge.” Isn’t this the Bible’s most-quoted verse? Isn’t this why so many people say “don’t judge me”? Later in the chapter Jesus says something else. He says that his followers can recognize [epiginosko] people, bad or good, by the deeds they do, the “fruit” they bear. That is not to say Christians should judge [krinete] bad people; instead, we recognize when people are not to be followed.

Thus, the history of Christian faith becomes more complicated!

Richard Foster wrote a book called Streams of Living Water in which he talks about the variety of denominations within the Christian church. Masterfully, he explains the contributions of various worshiping traditions who have done their best to faithfully know, follow, and serve Jesus. But no one group, in my opinion, has arrived. Each group of Christ-followers must journey forward, revealing the largeness of God and imitating the world-transforming Son of God, Jesus.

God is really big. When we read about different groups of people trying to serve God-conservative, liberal, traditional-we are to recognize them by their fruits. Most Christian denominations that come to mind-Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite, Catholic, Reformed-are examples of groups of people who have done their collective best to be sensitive to the teachings of Jesus and to respond accordingly.

As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.

The Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in May, here are a few of the things I’ve gained. I’ll be posting about one per day, out of order, over the next ten days. Some will be awesome. This one, #7 starts us off lightly.

#7

The best stories rule the world; and the best story is the strangely compelling narrative of Jesus.

*

Try as I might to find meaningful stories to communicate the reality of God, the story God has given us is simply the most compelling story the world will ever hear. My favorite movie is Clint Eastwood’s 2008 masterpiece, Gran Torino. SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to give away the plot. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it, and skip this post.

Anyway, I’ll make it simple. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crotchety retired Polish-American line-worker from Highland Park which is couched within the city limits of Detroit. He’s angry that all his white neighbors have moved away to the suburbs surrounding Detroit, angry that his kids are distant, angry that his priest [he’s Catholic] is young and inexperienced, angry that his wife passed away, angry that poor Hmong refugees now surround his neighborhood, angry that crime rates are up and that Detroit is struggling.

But something happens within Kowalski. I’d say it’s nothing but the power of God. Some may say it’s an old, angry gentleman who experiences an inner revolution. But I’d say it’s the life-transforming power of God.

He takes in a young neighbor, Thao, who had attempted to steal Kowalski’s prized car, an early ’70s Ford Gran Torino. At first it’s restitution, and Thao does odd jobs to make up for his attempted crime. But soon, Kowalski becomes a real mentor to Thao. Thao needs a father, and Kowalski coaches him on how to gather tools, hob-nob with the good-ol’-boys, fix things, and even gets him a construction job.

Gran Torino

Kowalski makes the mistake of roughing up some gang members who had been trying to recruit Thao into their drug-running enterprise. Soon, the gang retaliates and shoots up the Thao’ house and rapes his sister.

Outraged, Kowalski takes things into his own hands. His priest comes over to confront him, but even though he makes a serious confession, he hides his plan from the young minister.

By this point, I’m expecting a shootout between Kowalski and the gangsters. No good outcome is really possible here, right? In the light from streetlamps, he storms in and yells at the gangsters from the sidewalk. Then, provocatively, he reaches his hand into his vest pocket. They light him up, cutting him down with automatics. As he bleeds out, the watcher learns Kowalski was unarmed the whole time; he was reaching for a lighter for his cigarette.

Instead of continuing violence, he absorbs it, laying down his life for his new and foreign neighbor, the neighbor who tried to steal his car.

Kowalski’s actions were powerful. But they were only powerful because they mirror the greatest action of all: Christ’s work on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, absorbing violence instead of continuing it. But where Kowalski did plenty of things to deserve anger–maybe not murder, but certainly anger and distrust–Jesus was a perfect sacrifice.

Kowalski discovered the deepest meaning of love: it’s laying your life down for your friend. And his story is compelling because it mirrors the greatest story-the story of Jesus.

*

Two [Or More] Approaches to Cultural Engagement.

It’s called Porchfest.

Every year, my undergraduate university, Spring Arbor, does a years-end gathering complete with songs, dances, parodies, and comedy of every kind.

Each year we looked forward to Dr. Patton’s humble submission to the show. As an actor with a deep attachment to the world of theatre, he leveraged his powerful voice and calculated training to broadcast a simple yet profound message.

He would take the stage, stand in front of the microphone, and recite–as if reciting a moving sililoque–the lyrics from a top 40 song. And no matter what song he picked, each was slightly ridiculous. For example, All Gold Everything by Trinidad James, pictured below:

Trinidad Hames

Gold all in my chain,

Gold all in my rings,

Gold all in my watch,

Don’t believe me, just watch.

Don’t believe me, just watch.

Or another song, apparently an interesting swing at the fashion industry by Right Said Fred:

I’m too sexy for my car

Too sexy for my car

Too sexy by far

And I’m too sexy for my hat

Too sexy for my hat

What do you think about that?

Just picture it–a middle aged man, greying hair–and he’s quoting these profound lyrics in front of a thousand late teens matriculating through a Christian college.

Maybe it’s hard to picture.

Maybe not.

Now, another perspective.

Ken Heffner, director of Student Activities at Calvin College, perceives culture differently. His job involves inviting bands of all kinds to perform at Calvin. In November of 2014, he brought in David Bazan, a talented artist well known for his journey away from Christian faith and into agnosticism.

Heffner invites the artists to perform, then entreats his students to discern how God is at work within their artistry. Ken does a talk-back session after every performance, asking insightful questions relating to spirituality and faith, and the artists respond from their own vantage point. He has invited crude rappers and hard-edged rock bands to sing at his mid-sized Christian university, preserving the cadence of performance followed by talk-back.

Paul Patton subtly sheds light on the foolishness of culture, recognizing its strengths while seemingly keeping it in its place. Ken Heffner tacks a slightly different line, attempting to carefully observe how God is at work within culture.

To me, these two individuals represent two seemingly conflicting perspectives on how to live effectively, as Christians, in the world.

How to deal with culture is the difficult question at stake.

One stream of Christian faith has embraced culture and seen participation as the best option, seeking to enter fully into it and reform it. We see this especially clear in traditions such as the Reformed Church in America, a denomination that has received inspiration and influence from Abraham Kuyper and other thinkers. The other stream has distanced culture, recognizing its inherent temptations. We see this in holiness churches, churches influenced by John Wesley, among many others.

Both streams provide Christians with important wisdom.

Christians are surrounded with cultural influences. Just try driving along the expressway in an urban area; my guess is you will have to discern which billboards proclaim important truths. Just try doing a Google search for local restaurants; my guess is you will have to sort through ads and pop-ups in order to make progress.

No matter how hard one may try, apart from becoming a hermit there are limited ways to hide from culture.

I think we need Paul Pattons and Ken Heffners in the Christ-following world. The church needs to recognize the fallacies and deceit of culture. And yet, at the same time, followers of Jesus need to learn to meet others where they are.

Jesus sets a strong example in Mark 1:35 by rising early in the morning to pray. He retreats from the world. But in other instances, such as Mark 2:15-17 we learn that Jesus is spending time eating with tax collectors–duplicitous cheats who have betrayed their own people for personal gain–and he insists, when questioned by religious authorities, that he has come not for the right-doers, but for sinners–the wrongdoers.

Jesus engaged people where they were.

Our problem is that we are not Jesus. This does not mean we cannot carefully discern culture’s effects and engage with music and art and film, attempting to deeply exegete culture for kingdom purposes. But it does mean that we have to preserve a strong sense of what is right and good.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we have each received a wealth of wisdom from his example. But we also learn from the development of the first churches. Paul instructed the churches at Philippi in this way:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things [Phil. 4:8].”

Because of our formation, we may relate more in our approach to culture to Ken Heffner or to Paul Patton. Because of my own formation, I must admit that I fall in line more quickly with Paul Patton’s skepticism of culture and his sensitive conscience. I know many other people who are more comfortable with Ken Heffner’s open yet carefully discerning approach.

Either way, we should honor or brothers and sisters in faith as we make choices that are reconciled with our conscience. And our best instruction always comes from Scripture. And whatever our spiritual heritage, our allegiance always belongs exclusively to Jesus.

God is a Parent.

I had a realization the other day. I was staring at our little 3-week-old, Silas and trying to get him to stare back at me and respond to me. Turns out, as you may know, that newborn babies don’t develop the ability to maintain eye contact until something like 6 or 8 weeks.

IMG_1887

Thing is, between Kaile and me, we have been attending to every little detail of Silas’s life, every since he came out. He certainly doesn’t realize it yet, but we have been looking after his every need. We are probably not the best parents the world has seen, but we are at least present.

This experience is teaching me about how God sees us. No, we don’t always realize how much he wants to hear from us. No, we don’t always grasp that he is caring for us. But there he is. There he has been, all along. When we’re wondering how we are to find meaning and purpose and identity, or shelter and food and companionship, there he is. When we are tired of the daily commute, our boss, our dirty house, our yet-unaccomplished life goals, there he is.


Psalm 33:14-15+18-22 speaks on this:

“The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man;

14 from where he sits enthroned he looks out

on all the inhabitants of the earth,

15 he who fashions the hearts of them all

and observes all their deeds.

18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,

on those who hope in his steadfast love,

19 that he may deliver their soul from death

and keep them alive in famine.

20 Our soul waits for the Lord;

he is our help and our shield.

21 For our heart is glad in him,

because we trust in his holy name.

22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,

even as we hope in you.

Parents and Children: Part 2.

In my last blog post, I revealed how I spent significant time in rebellion from my parents-about 2 years, actually. Between 2003 and late 2005, I failed to recognize how much my parents loved me and sought the absolute best for me. Eventually, God graciously helped me to eventually see plainly the concern they both have for me.

If you took time to read my previous post, you are now thinking one of two things: 1. “You dummy. Everyone should be thankful for their parents.” or, 2. “You dummy. Do you not realize that other people have strained parent relationships, bad parents, or no parents at all?”

Those are valid points! Many of us have some kind of difficulties with parents at some point in our lives, especially during certain growing-up years. Ages 12-19 may be the toughest. But it is not the case that the problem generally lies with the child. Some of us really do have terrible parents who do not care at all for us, or who are entirely absent from us. If this is your situation, I lament with you. 

I have numerous friends and connections who have strained parental relationships; indeed, some have no parents. One friend comes to mind whose father committed adultery with a family friend. Imagine the difficulties this Christian family has endured. Another friend has a mother with severe depression, and a father who refuses to get her treatment because of his beliefs. Imagine watching all of this while slowly becoming an adult; how utterly painful. Another friend, considerably younger than me, lives with his overworked mother. She has numerous children with various men. This friend has never had a consistent father figure, much less a mother who is around often enough to truly listen. 

It is indeed a broken, splintered world we inhabit. 

For followers of Jesus, there is a long-term hope: Jesus, our brother in humanity [Bible, New Testament, Hebrews 2] and our intercessor in divinity [Bible, New Testament, Colossians 1:15-20], connects us to the family of God. This does not right every wrong at this very moment, but it reveals the coming world of God. In God’s kingdom, divisions between people will cease, even between parents and children. Justice will be established for all-yes, for families too. Paul, an important leader in the early church, draws this God-as-a-parent concept out in Romans 8:12-17. God reveals that we are adopted as children. Eventually we become heirs, with our brother/savior, Jesus, of all the good that God has stored up for those who follow him.

New Life

However you understand the concept of family and the parental relationship, know today that God is your parent. Know too that God never intended families to be divided. Our relationship issues have their source in our own human failures-our sin as it is described in the Bible. The good news is that the wrongs are eventually made right. The last book in the Bible, Revelation, tells us how God, through Jesus, is making all things new [Revelation 21:5].  

It is a new year, and with it can come a fresh turn of events and a change in our inner emotions. Could this be the year we allow God in to begin healing our most painful relationships?

Whatever good or bad came through your relationship with your human parents, we can all look to God as our ultimate parent. If you were fortunate enough to have good parents, be thankful for them. If you did or do not, again, I lament with you. But together, we look forward to the coming day when God makes all things new and good and right-including family relationships.